Harriet Harman at Wimbledon this summer. Photo: Getty
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The problem with Harriet Harman’s proposed gambling tax

Labour think the levy can be used to fund elite sports development as well as grass-roots sports. So, they must be hoping for a lot of gambling in order to generate the sums needed.

Labour’s latest big idea to sort out sport is a betting levy. The shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, and shadow sports minister, Clive Efford, are very keen to promote the idea, the centrepiece of an ambitious “sport for all” approach unveiled in one of the policy documents we’re sure to see more of in the run-up to the general election.

It has a handy moral element, something Labour is still strangely keen on despite the damage done to the moral approach by that arch moraliser Tony Blair. “We believe it is right,” said Efford, “that businesses that make money from sport should contribute to sport”. It’s the kind of “we’re against sin” statement that’s recognisable to anyone familiar with the grandstanding approach encouraged by political conferences; a nice general concept without much attention to specifics. And one that falls apart under serious examination.

No doubt Labour would say a tremendous amount of wonk-power has gone into working the policy out and I do hesitate to bash the idea when at least it leans in a more progressive direction than the awful coalition – although that sets a pretty low base. But I can’t get away from the fact the idea is fundamentally flawed. What’s more, it avoids the real issues.

Harman flagged up the gambling levy as something that can help fund community facilities and treat gambling addiction. So, in order to stop people gambling so much, we need people to gamble enough to fund programmes that stop them gambling too much.

Both Harman and Efford reckon a betting levy could be used to stop people gambling so much and to fund community facilities. Which immediately sets up a problem. Because if a situation is established in which community sports facilities increasingly rely on funds generated by a betting levy, reducing the amount of money spent on gambling will eventually reduce the amount of money spent on community sports facilities.

The trouble with basing political policy on such an unscientific and subjective concept as morals is that the intellectual basis of the argument tends not to stack up. Which is the case in this instance. Do we want people to gamble, or not? And how do we decide what is enough gambling and what is too much? How do we compare the burden borne by the individual with the benefit to society?

Harman and Efford also reckon the betting levy can be used to fund elite sports development as well as grass-roots sports. So, they must be hoping for a lot of gambling in order to generate the sums needed. Perhaps they will divert some of the funds from the programmes used to stop people from gambling too much in order to stop those programmes being so successful that they reduce the amount of money generated through gambling to fund elite sport, community sport and any other part of sport that gets tossed in.

Making the interests of sport and the interests of gambling pretty similar, if not the same, is – frankly – bonkers. That doesn’t mean I take a puritanical attitude to betting. I’m partial to a cheeky flutter from time to time, and I enjoy my annual, and usually successful, efforts to stay ahead of the game during my annual jolly boys outing to The Oaks at Epsom, one the finest days out sport offers.

But that doesn’t mean I am not uncomfortable with the sheer volume of betting noise that surrounds sport. Betting companies advertise at what seems every opportunity, with one company selling gambling as a lifestyle choice for wannabe chaps, and another turning dear old Ray Winstone from national treasure to a figure you would never tire of punching. Although maybe I should change that to “never tire of seeing someone else punching” in case he’s reading this.

The point is you don’t have to be a puritan to worry about how all-pervasive gambling is becoming. As gambling around sport grows, so does the risk of fixing, or at least the perception of a heightened risk of fixing. I’ve said many times before that sport is a successful commercial proposition because people believe in the fundamental honesty of the competition. If sport is not seen as honest, it’s not seen as sport. That’s why, for example, America’s National Football League forbids adverts for Vegas during NFL games. It recognises that a responsible sport governing body needs to do more than look for a tick in the box after the question “Are you going to give us money?’ when choosing who it works with.

Labour’s plans have been denounced as “a gimmick” by the Conservatives, because they will lead to “higher ticket prices for ordinary people” – a phenomenon the Tories have previously shown absolutely no interest in countering. The criticism is a typically boneheaded response from a party that denies the role a state should play, and comes as no surprise.

The trouble is, Labour’s pushing of the policy also reveals the poverty of its ambition, the extent of its surrender to the kind of forces it was brought into existence to counter. It claims to be serious about wanting betting companies to contribute to society, yet it has yet to show any serious commitment to tackling the industry’s move offshore, because this means it would have to seriously address larger issues of tax avoidance that risk it being accused of being ‘anti-business’.

Labour bangs on about “strong government leadership” to increase participation in sport, to restore playing fields, to increase the amount of time dedicated to sport in schools, to cure obesity and possibly even secure world peace, and yet it underlines its refusal to intervene in the precious market by basing all this on a gambling levy.

If, as Efford claims, the party wants to “empower the people who do most of the work in our local communities to have more influence over how we plan, organise and deliver sport and physical education at local level” it needs to return real powers to local level, and back them with the strong central power of the state to ensure a genuinely national approach that has the greatest effect and utilises economies of scale most efficiently.

It needs to legislate to ensure sporting bodies behave like sporting bodies, and not simply as commercial enterprises. And it needs to stop scuttling back into the shadows every time someone says this means it’s anti-business.

A truly ambitious, genuinely radical but well-grounded policy would, above all, recognise that sport plays an important part in society for reasons of public health, community engagement and, hell, sheer damn pleasure, and that therefore government should properly fund sport, not dream up schemes to slice a bit here and a bit there from the commercial enterprises to which it has ceded control of policy. And, having established that government has both a role and a responsibility to fund sport, it would then be able to argue that sport has a responsibility, in turn, to obey a set of common standards on governance that would solve many of the problems facing many of our sports today.

That is not a radical solution. It is an achievable ambition that would attract popular support.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

Yet with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.